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Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”: A Commentary, Part 1 (Introduction & Wesley’s Theory)

December 23, 2017

“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
I didn’t wanna self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop Survivors’ Guilt
Going back and forth tryin’ to convince myself of the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fightin’ a continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on Apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, just another nigga”

Intro

Can we understand Christianity better than as a particular way of realising, and responding to, our own inadequacies? To Pimp a Butterfly is, I suggest, a story about that journey, that tragic struggle. This pivotal concept is articulated Kendrick’s “Another Nigga”, quoted above, which unfolds gradually and incompletely as the album progresses before being read out in full in the final track, “Mortal Man”. (The lines above gradually taking a more and more complete form parallels Kendrick’s increasing self-awareness and maturity as the album proceeds). As I hope to show in this series of commentaries, the order of the themes in the album mirrors the order of the themes in the poem.

My thoughts on each track, and on the album as a whole, are in no way intended to be comprehensive (nor could they be, if I had so intended). They are also not intended to be “the final say” on any particular interpretive or aesthetic issue. Being a privileged white male, my understanding and appreciation of this music is – sadly – bound to be limited in various important ways. So it is also important to convey that I do not intend to put words in the mouth of Kendrick or any of the artists on this album. Rather, I should like to think of my role in this commentary as a novice, encountering a brilliant, sophisticated creation and attempting to understand it in my own (inferior) terms. If my attempt helps the reader engage, to any degree, more deeply with this (in my view) incredibly (musically, politically, religiously/spiritually) important artwork, it will have been worthwhile making this commentary public.

Note: Although the n-word features in the words I write below, it does so only when I’m quoting somebody else.

 

1 Wesley’s Theory
The album begins with a simple, trebly, sickly-sweet mutiple repetition: “Every nigger is a star!” But suddenly this gets rudely interrupted – “Hit me!” – and the cheesy brightness of the intro music collapses, to the stark contrast of an incredibly punchy, in-your-face rhythm and deep bass line. We’re being told that this album is going to involve self-questioning, and it is going to challenge us; lulling us into a sense of security before slapping us in the face. (The self-questioning is particularly sharp, and particularly directed towards Kendrick’s identity as an African American, in “Blacker the Berry”, as we will see later). This is a wake-up call. But what are we supposed to wake up to?
The facade of the cheerful idealism in the opening – “every nigger is a star” – is quickly attacked. When the “bubble” of this facade bursts, i.e. when “the four corners of this cocoon collide”, Kendrick is told, you will struggle to survive.

 

This realization of the risk of destruction prompts an effort to induce self-questioning: “Gather your wit, take a deep look inside: Are you really who they idolize?” It is significant that this verse is not delivered by Kendrick; as is usually the case in life, we tend to need others’ help to realise we might have a problem. You can view the first several tracks of the album as Kendrick answering – or trying to answer – Leimberg’s question.

 

Leimberg’s vocal challenge sets a pattern, since throughout the album, we will see, voices that are not Kendrick’s – or the words of others, spoken or quoted by Kendrick, such as his grandmother’s – have absolutely crucial roles in the album’s story. I think this reflects Kendrick’s humility: he does not pretend to have found the answers to his troubles on his own, and he has the courage to admit, and lay bare, his dependence on others.

 
One role the other voices play is to interrupt. Just as the cheesy opening was interrupted and partly thereby exposed as a facade, so too Kendrick’s illusions are often interrupted and challenged in the course of the album’s dialogues.

 
Kendrick’s first answer to Leimberg’s question is incredibly honest: “At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck/ Late nights thinking of you, until I get my nut”. It’s not just that his focus has changed from love to mere sex, but that it is now based on selfishness – hence why he thinks of this person only until he “gets his nut”. The other person is now primarily a mere means to his own pleasure.

 
Along with this admission comes more than a twinge of regret: “Bridges burned, all across the board/Destroyed, but what for?”

 
On one reading, this question is not answered, and we instead witness what appears another interruption – although in this case (importantly) a self-interruption. Kendrick suddenly changes the subject to all of the crazy shit he will do “when [he] get signed”, ranging from sexual exploits, to splurging money on expensive items, to encouraging violence by handing out M-16s in the hood (verse 1). While this behaviour is “uneducated”, he “got a million-dollar cheque like that”: in this mindset, his fame and financial success justifies – or at least excuses – him doing whatever he wants. The question of why bridges were burned with his “first girlfriend” remains unanswered; the only answer is an escape into the superficial and easy pleasures wealth and fame allow.
An alternative reading might have it that Kendrick’s answer to the question “but what for?” is given here, albeit in a roundabout way. His relationship was a casualty of his ambition to achieve fame and the easy pleasures that accompany it; hence the literal answer to “what for?” is “to get famous and the easy pleasures coming with that”.
The two readings set out here might be compatible. The ambiguity could reflect Kendrick’s own uncertainty as to whether he believes that becoming famous justified wrecking his previous relationship, or whether he merely considers this (non-justifying) autobiographical explanation.

 
Insofar as he does think himself justified in this way, Kendrick would be subscribing to “Wesley’s Theory”, which counsels dealing with the pressures of life – life as a prominent black American man in particular – through a selfish hedonism, a trap that Kendrick suggests Wesley Snipes fell into.

 
Dr Dre interrupts this to warn Kendrick of complacency: “Anybody can get it [security, success], the hard part is keeping it, motherfucker!”

 
Despite this, the focus in the next verse remains materialistic, specifically on what Kendrick can buy with his new-found money: ” a house or a car / Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?” But, significantly, this verse does not seem to be spoken by Kendrick’s own voice but rather “Uncle Sam’s”, which counsels “Too much ain’t enough, both we know… Get it all, you deserve it Kendrick”. The impression is very much of a devil on his shoulder, relating this verse to later ideas about “the evils of Lucy [Lucifer]… all around me” (see “Another Nigga”).

 
There are multiple ominous sounds and messages in this track which hint at the deep unsatisfaction and unease Kendrick feels with (following) Wesley’s Theory. Uncle Sam threatens: “I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five”, hinting that Kendrick is aware that the path of Wesley’s Theory can lead to prison, or worse. (Wesley Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to file income tax returns). Highly significantly, the figure of “Uncle Sam” represents white power: it is not only that the overwhelming majority of lawyers and politicians in the US are white and socio-economically elite, but the personification of this powerful elite in the figure of “Uncle Sam” is an old, white man. (As we saw in the previous paragraph, the figure of Uncle Sam has also been connected the the devil). If African Americans “get above their station”, like Snipes, Uncle Sam will come calling to “put them back in their place”. (I use this language not to in any way endorse the racist narrative that justifies white power, but to give a sense of the source of Kendrick’s (rational) fear that he remains vulnerable to white power despite his fame and financial success).

 
George Clinton’s bridge reminds Kendrick that it’s “quite a drop from the top”. Perhaps most troubling are the repeated lines (not sung by Kendrick) “We should’ve never gave niggas money/ Go back home, money, go back home”. The suggestion seems to be that, by using his fame and money for selfish and thoughtless purposes, Kendrick is to some degree fulfilling the evil prophecies of those racists who believe they “never should have given niggas money” due to their belief that African Americans lack the discipline to use fame and money responsibly.

 
The track comes to a tumultuous halt with another interruption, this time of increasingly hysterical voices yelling “Taxman coming!”, which gradually drown out the rest of the music. There are a few levels to this: first, the taxman’s arrival represents Uncle Sam’s fulfilment of the threat to “Wesley Snipe [Kendrick’s] ass before thirty-five” (this threat is issued as the music drops out, making it more emphatic and shocking); second, it suggests that Kendrick’s (financial) exuberance is going to be reigned in (by the white Government), lastly and most generally, it signifies that wider forces are at play which are going to bring Kendrick to account. The metaphorical idea is that Kendrick has debts not of a financial but a spiritual kind to account for; particularly his unresolved internal tension about the burning of bridges with his first girlfriend.

 
The latter idea has special significance particularly given Kendrick’s Christian belief and background, which (as I hope to show throughout this series) is very often important for grasping the meaning of particular lines as well as general themes in his music.

 

 

Kendrick’s conscience prickling him about how his previous relationship ended could be understood as, on his part, consciousness of sin. I am here reminded of Kierkegaard’s claim that the only non-treasonous route to Christianity is through consciousness of sin. In that light, the line about the “taxman coming” and the associated idea of Kendrick having debts to pay could be understood as (partial) recognition of a debt to his neighbour and God to rectify and atone for the mistakes he has made. (We will see how Kendrick eventually tries to atone as the album progresses. Some basic ideas are already made explicit in “Another Nigga”.)

 
In the Christian moral system, the notion of “atonement” has a particular role and meaning related to the literal “at one” (i.e. unified). The sinner fails to be at one with God, but also fails even to be at one with his or herself, and hence needs Absolution (to be made whole). Consider this concept with reference to the words of “Another Nigga”: the first line, “I remember you was conflicted”, explicitly sets out that Kendrick understands his problem (the problem with his mental health) as being about the conflict within him; i.e. the fact that there are different parts of his personality pulling him in different directions.

 
How does this inner conflict manifest? Above, I suggested that Kendrick interrupts himself when he dodges the question “why did you burn your bridges?” by boasting about the cool stuff he can buy now. This could be read as Kendrick’s hedonistic, Wesley’s Theory-side interrupting his conscientious, reflective side.

 
Like anything torn by two internal forces pulling in opposite directions, if nothing is done there is a risk of “self-destruction” (see again “Another Nigga”: “I didn’t wanna self-destruct”.) This theme is particularly prominent in the later track “u”, and I will comment upon it later.

 
We will also see below that Kendrick’s quest for atonement – unity, wholeness – will also involve an effort to unify his community. Here I am reminded of Plato’s insistence that societal peace is impossible where inner peace is absent and vice versa. But first he will have to quiet (at least to some extent) the chaos or “conflict” in his own mind.

 
The function of “Wesley’s Theory” in this album is to lay bare how and why Kendrick is “conflicted”. On one hand, Kendrick is clearly attracted to Wesley’s Theory, with the (veneer of) power and pleasure it brings. At the same time, we see that following it does not rest well with Kendrick’s conscience: he is unsure whether he was right to burn bridges with his past girlfriend and he apparently cannot put this issue out of his mind. The more senior voices around him are warning that he is currently on a course for disaster. Perhaps most pressingly and most forcefully to his egoistic side, he now realises that if he carries on this way (e.g. “handing out M-16s in the hood”), Uncle Sam is going to put an end to his misadventures by force. It is more accurate to say he possesses a veneer of power than true power, since (like Snipes) he remains vulnerable to Uncle Sam despite his apparent worldly success.

 
Although there is some sense that Kendrick is conflicted from the words of this opening track, I would like to remind the reader of the point I made in the Introduction: that the gradual unfolding of “Another Nigga” mirrors, among other things, Kendrick’s self-awareness at various stages throughout the album. Here, it is significant that “Another Nigga” has not yet even begun: the first line, i.e. the one where Kendrick makes an admission (confession?) about his internal conflict, has not yet been uttered. The reader/listener might consider whether this represents how, at this stage of his life, Kendrick’s awareness of his inner conflict was very rough and inexplicit. Perhaps he was (to some extent) in denial about the problems he was facing. Before a confession is made (and the denial phase is thereby cut short), how can one begin one’s process of religious/spiritual/mental healing (or atonement)?

 
In light of the decisive multiple anxieties about blind obedience to Wesley’s Theory raised in this track, some alternative response must be found before the taxman arrives, but at this stage we have no idea what that solution might be. We are left anxious: what will happen when the taxman arrives?

 
“Wesley’s Theory”, then, is about “misusing your influence”, being conflicted, and “abusing your power”. It is not just an honest expression of Kendrick’s temptations but also the beginnings of a problematization of them, and hence counts as the start of his recognition of his own inadequacies. But, significantly, this process is now only in embryonic stages.

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